Why Tailenders Should Open the Batting

#tailendersoftheworlduniteandtakeover the top of the batting order.

The inaugural round of County Championship ‘pink ball’ cricket was highly anticipated by its followers, curious to see how this different coloured ball would compare to the red of over 100 years use. The confusion about which meal to name after each break in play created a sense of novelty and entering into the new. When asked about how they might respond to this change, players and coaches mostly came out with the clichéd response of “at the end of the day, it’s still cricket with a bowler and a batter, so nothing will change really.” However, this isn’t the approach that all counties took. Sense has a habit of revealing itself when things are played out to the extreme, as with the relatively large exaggerated movement and lack of deviation later in the innings of the pink ball compared to a normal red ball in this case.

This was Worcestershire’s mindset when playing vs. Durham in this first round of pink ball games in 2017. Batting second and noting the prolific movement of the pink ball early on and then a lack of movement a short while into the innings, Worcestershire sent out two lower order batsmen “to get the ball soft by belting it a few times, and also try to knock their bowlers off their stride when the ball was at its most dangerous[i].” A brave tactic from the Worcestershire team that arguably only occurred due to the novelty of the pink ball trial, creating a ‘why not?’ attitude. Yet, I see a lot of sense in this approach and it could provide an advantage to a team bold enough to try this in a traditional red ball setting.

Imagine a fairly typical situation, the opposition have just been bowled out leaving 5 overs to navigate to the end of the day’s play. The two usual openers nervously stroll out in a situation where they stand to gain nothing and only lose their wicket. One of the openers nicks off after a few balls, so a nightwatchman is sent in, to shepherd the innings to the close. This situation makes no sense to me: why not just send out the nightwatchman immediately? Yet it is not uncommon for a team to pursue this tactic and it got me thinking: why don’t teams ever send out two nightwatchmen and, for that matter, why don’t teams send out tailenders to open the batting every innings as Worcestershire did when things were taken to the extreme?

The typical role of an opener in red-ball cricket is to make sure that they ‘see off’ the new ball to protect the rest of the batting order from the most dangerous part of the innings. With movement more prodigious early on, runs are arguably less important than the protection of the rest of the batting order at this point in the game to try to increase the probability of more runs later in the innings. It therefore seems an unnecessary risk to send out valuable batters at this point, particularly when you have a resource that matters far less if they succeed or fail at this dangerous point in the innings.

The opportunity cost of sending in tailenders to open the batting is low. They are generally not expected to score many runs, so why run the risk of losing a better player at the top of the order? There is far less to lose from sending the traditionally lower-order batters in to open the batting. The difference between sending them out at any point in the innings is likely to be small, it can’t matter hugely when you only average single figures anyway. Doing so would mean that they are able to take up some, even if only a little, of the most dangerous part of the bowling and reduce the potential risk for the rest of the batting order, a key role of the opening batter.

There is of course a fair amount of reasoning about how the traditional opener’s role has been sculpted over the years. The resolute mindset and conservative technique of many openers is a craft to be admired. There is something so admirable and pleasing about digging in against a swinging ball and surviving through the challenging first few overs of an innings that, although not many envy this role, there is a certain allure for others. Maybe more respect needs to be given towards to difficulty of opening the batting and to send in the tailenders to perform such a noble task perhaps may be a complete waste of time, as these players wouldn’t stand a chance.  Having the ‘proper’ batters lower down the order would of course eliminate the art of guiding the tail through to the end of an innings for the established batters. It would also increase the chance of leaving well-set batters stranded after running out of partners.

Yet there does still seem to be some sense in sending out the bowlers “to get the ball soft by belting it a few times,” or digging in to absorb some of the opening spell, and reducing the exposure of the rest of the order to facing the more treacherous batting conditions. Ultimately, the decision comes down to a trade-off between the potential loss of runs at the end of the innings, with the increased likelihood of not out batters, against the potential gain from the best batters in the team being able to avoid the most dangerous part of the innings and to cash in through the easier overs as a result.

If anything, it would also mean a nice long rest for the opening bowlers and prevent the need for them to moronically sprint off at the end of the batting innings to get ready to bowl. For the teams in the lower end of the County Championship Div. 2 table, without the threat of relegation and nothing to lose if the experiment falls flat on its arse, then I think that this tactic would be a worth a go. At least the next time an innings starts close to the end of play, sending in two nightwatchmen makes absolute sense, and if you don’t believe me then just ask Jack Leach.    

[i] https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/cricket/40404141